Monday, November 26, 2007

I Blame The Hierarchy

Here at Liberal College Law, the law students are permitted to attend faculty candidate job talk paper presentations, and to have a separate meeting with faculty candidates to ask all manner of substantive and interesting questions. I have never before attended one of these presentations or panels, but last week found the experience interesting, illuminative, and an awesome inversion of academic hierarchy.

The presentation and panel went really well, I thought. The Candidate is one of the giants of his/her field (I am not indulging in hyperbole here) and is a up for a lateral tenured position from an extremely high ranked law school to our more modestly high ranked law school. It may be like, climbing a step or so down from a ladder, but because we are in Awesome Part of the Country with a particularly strong set of faculty in his/her area, well, the move has all sorts of subjective considerations. It would be a big coup for our school, which already has excellent faculty in this subject area. No, I cannot be more specific than this, it is, like all academic subfields, a small community.

This wasn't the first time I sat in on a faculty colloquium paper talk--at my last law school and this one, they are always open to students. Occasionally students participate in the Q&A, which I think is really cool. The paper talk last week was interesting and presented a novel framework, and the questions asked by the faculty (four of whom wrote in The Candidate's area) generated great discussion. The students, typically cowed by authority, kept quiet this time around.

What is different about Liberal College Law is that students are allowed a separate meeting with the faculty candidates. There's a formal committee for this, and all of their meetings are open to all of the students. This is not an interview per se, but students ask the candidates questions about their scholarship, their teaching interests, views on mentorship and interest in supervision of student research and advisorship of student organizations, etc. Feedback is then given to the school's Faculty Hiring Committee.

It's a neat feature of our school. I can imagine such talks going very badly if the students ask insensitive or dumb questions (yes, there are such things), but the questions asked were very good. This Candidate in particular drew out the J.D./Ph.D grad students, and so questions were asked about the paper's central thesis that were as good as questions asked by other faculty. That generated some interesting discussion. And further questions about The Candidate's attitudes towards academic and institutional obligations were good: I think it is fair of students to ask how interested a potential faculty is in teaching a certain course that the law school typically farms out to adjuncts; as well as the Candidate's willingness to supervise student research given that our school is trying to produce more academics.

Students have particular institutional needs from their faculty: while I don't endorse a students-as-consumers model, I do think that students have every right to certain academic expectations: good, fair, "tough" teaching; a certain degree of mentoring (case-by-case basis; the student receives what s/he invests, e.g. not letters of rec on demand, but letters of rec on merit) and support. Faculty should be open to being a part of their institution by supervising student projects and advising student groups and journals and attending to curricular gaps if they can. I know that faculty are already overstretched by their scholarship demands, teaching loads, and committee and administrative work, but you are there to teach and be a part of the life of the school. That means interacting with the students inside and outside of the classroom.

In sum, I think that students do have an important role to serve in the selection of faculty candidates. I hope that our feedback is taken seriously, and am not so cynical as to think that all of our reviews are discarded. If anything, at least the students got a chance to talk to The Candidate, who is now apprised of the students' questions and concerns. That is not without intrinsic value. Students are the life and blood of a school, and their particular needs and ideas should not be disregarded.

Interestingly, this post comes on the heels of another post by Rick Garnett asking whether students should participate in dean selection committees. I participated in a panel to select the new dean of my old school, and found the experience valuable. And so yes, I think that students should be a part of the process. For all the above mentioned reasons, students should have a certain degree of input into who teaches them and who is the steward of their school.